Milton Kemnitz (1911-2005) was an Ann Arbor artist.

In the news

Milton Kemnitz, Ann Arbor District Library "Old News" collection.


Monroe, NY — Milton Kemnitz, an early crusader for civil rights who traded his protest sign for the artist's brush in the 1940s, died a week ago at his son's home in Monroe, where he had lived since 2000. He was 93.

Kemnitz, a Michigan native, began his career as a social worker in the 1930s but soon discovered his calling as an activist by organizing welfare recipients — a project that at first cost him his social-worker job.

He went on to become secretary of the Detroit-based Conference for the Protection of Civil Rights, which expanded into the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties. He went to work for that organization in Washington, D.C., in 1941.

In April 1942, Kemnitz spoke at an NFCL conference in Washington to protest the South's racist Jim Crow policies and poll tax, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the suspension of strike rights and other wartime measures.

Kemnitz moved to New York City in 1942 to run the NFCL there and then spent much of World War II as a merchant seaman in Europe. It was during that service that he learned to paint through a National Maritime Union program.

After the war, he returned to New York and then to Ann Arbor in his native Michigan, bent on making his living as an artist. And that's what he did. He painted Ann Arbor streetscapes and Great Lakes ships, birds and trains, and scenes of the Georgian Bay. Ever the activist, Kemnitz used his paintings of old buildings in Ann Arbor to fight for their preservation.

His books of art included "Michigan Memories," "Ann Arbor Now and Then" and "London and Back."

Kemnitz and the former Esther Lichtenstein married in 1939. After she died in May 2000, Kemnitz moved to Monroe to live with his son, Dr. Thomas Milton Kemnitz.


Early Civil-Rights Leader and popular Michigan artist. Milton Neumann Kemnitz died peacefully in his sleep on 26 February 2005. He was born in Detroit, Michigan on March 31, 1911 to William Hermann and Amanda Neumann Kemnitz.

He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1933 and immediately took a job as a social worker in Washtenaw County. He was fired from that position in 1935 for his activities in organizing the welfare recipients. Although he was rehired, he was launched on a career of social, political, and union activism. He took part in the sit-down strike at the General Motors facility in Flint, shared a house with Walter and Victor Reuther and Norman Thomas when they founded the UAW, and became secretary of the Detroit-based Conference for the Protection of Civil Rights [CPCR].

Milton Kemnitz remained secretary when the CPCR grew into the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties [NFCL]. In June of 1941, he moved the NFCL to Washington, D.C. While many of the causes they took up were futile, all had to be fought, and they had many successes. Among them was getting an unconditional pardon in January of 1939 for Thomas J. Mooney who had been sentenced to death for bombings of the 1916 San Francisco Preparedness Day parade. A grateful Mooney sent the pardon to Milt Kemnitz with an inscription thanking him. In Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, they won the freedom of an African-American farm labor union organizer named Clinton Clark. Their modus operandi was to win a case, and with each victory they put authorities throughout the country on notice to cease and desist practices that were as clearly unconstitutional as they were widespread.

In April of 1942, the NFCL held a National Action Conference for Civil Rights in Washington to protest Jim Crow, the poll tax, the internment of the Japanese, the suspension of the rights of labor to strike, and many other war-time measures. As secretary, Milton Kemnitz voiced from the podium his protest against the attempts to create a national unity at the expense of the constitutional liberties of all Americans. Time has endorsed the vision of the delegates to this conference. Every law that they said was wrong in 1942 has been repealed. Every action they protested in 1942 the country now regrets. Every right they said should be guaranteed in 1942 has been established as a right.

In 1942, the sources of support of the NFCL shifted, and Milt Kemnitz moved to New York City to continue to run the NFCL. He spent much of World War II as a merchant seaman on Liberty ships in the European theatre. During his time on board ship, he aided the National Maritime Union and was a delegate to its congress in 1945. The National Maritime Union had a program to teach seamen to paint, and Milt took advantage of the opportunity. After the war, he returned to New York to the NFCL, but now he had his eye set on a return to Ann Arbor and a career as an artist. His great friend Dashiell Hammett took him to Ben Shahns studio where they discussed how he might make a living as an artist in southeastern Michigan. In October of 1947, Milt moved his family back to Ann Arbor determined to spend as much of his life as possible making art.

Through the rest of his life, Milton Kemnitz painted the buildings, old homes and street scenes of Ann Arbor and University of Michigan; he did many paintings of ships-particularly the Great Lakes ships-and of birds and landscapes of Georgian Bay, and of trains and automobiles. Repeatedly, he painted, drew and made prints of the buildings he thought should be preserved, and he played a great part in efforts to preserve the character of Ann Arbor. He was always interested in learning and using new media: watercolors, oils, pen and ink, silk screen, collage, stained glass.

By a variety of means, Kemnitz managed to make his art widely owned. Among the books he produced are Michigan Memories, Ann Arbor Now and Then, and London and Back. His car drawings were collected in Cars That Caught My Eye, and lately his paintings have been extensively used in a series of grammar books called Grammar Island, Grammar Town, and Grammar Voyage.

He married Esther Lichtenstein on August 18, 1939, and she was the central focus of his life until her death in May of 2000. Thereafter, he moved to Monroe, New York where he lived in the house of his son. He is survived by his son Dr. Thomas Milton Kemnitz, his grandson Thomas Jr and his daughter Martha Kvaran.